Are local universities in bed with the RIAA and MPAA?

BoingBoing editor Cory Doctorow has beef with USC, and it’s not because he’s tired of hearing about the “legacy” of their football team (BoingBoing post). He’s upset about an e-mail sent to USC students at the start of their fall semester (e-mail dissected).

Doctorow’s concerns center around the omission of fair-use provisions particularly relevant to young scholars at a prominent research university, USC siding with the RIAA and MPAA rather than protecting students, and USC’s supposed purpose as a postsecondary institution . He proposes comparing policies based on “which schools side with scholarship and academic integrity, and which ones take USC’s approach of putting non-leagl notions of copyright ahead of its students’ education.” I’ll leave that for someone else to do, and just focus on UCLA and the UC system.

Words and acronyms like file-sharing, RIAA, P2P, and MPAA are heard regularly at UCLA where some students have been sued by the RIAA. The Daily Bruin reports on the latest on the topic and publishes editorials criticizing the RIAA and MPAA (here, here, here, here, here, and here). This past academic year, UCLA launched the Get Legal program to promote legal alternatives to downloading music and movies. There are small incentives to using the iTunes Store. Five cents of each song or 50 cents per album purchased will go back to students through student government. I suppose after 7 UCLA students, and some from our sister campuses in Davis, Berkeley and San Diego were sued in May 2005, the university felt it needed to step up its efforts to inform students.

More after the jump…

I found an archived copy of an e-mail from top administrators addressed to the campus community (October, 2003; link). It reads like a warning. The RIAA is stepping up its efforts, you may get caught. We gets lots of infringement claims, we have to comply under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and UCLA policy. Once they take legal action, you’re on your own. It’s not all gloom and doom. The writers of the e-mail noted that there are academic uses for peer-to-peer applications useful for sharing research and scholarship. The last line reads “We will ensure that such inquiry remains unimpeded and balance all needs fundamental to our institution.”

The official UCLA and UC copyright policy are online and rather simple to navigate (UC Copyright, UCLA Copyright Policy). Fair use guidelines for academics and students are included on both UC and UCLA websites so that students and faculty know how they can and cannot use copyrighted material for educational purposes.

An article entitled The Download Dillemma (Spring, 2006) in UCLA Magazine tackled the topic and the university’ response.

UCLA’s solution required a delicate balancing act, protecting a student’s right to use such programs for legitimate research purposes while installing a notification system to detect theft. It involved launching a campuswide education effort to teach students about the importance of protecting intellectual property. And with the recently unveiled “Get Legal” program, UCLA now offers students a legitimate and inexpensive way to buy content.

“We wanted to be very careful to deal with these [issues] in a way that stayed within our policies and cultural values, addressed the due process of the students, met the legal requirements of the [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] and showed our respect for copyright in the sense of being a producer of intellectual capital,” says Jim Davis, UCLA’s associate vice chancellor of information technology and chief information officer.

UCLA’s policy is contrasted with the University of Florida’s “draconian” approach. UCLA does not police students, but a notification system has been installed on residence hall computers to detect violations

[Automaticed Copyright Notification System] automatically restricts or shuts down Internet access for alleged violators. UCLA modified the ACNS technology and policy assumptions (to conform to the university’s privacy rights policy) and deployed a “quarantine” approach based on a two-strike policy that would give students a chance to defend themselves. When the university is notified of an infringement, the quarantine approach first blocks the offending computer from file-sharing.

Students still have access to university computers and can check email or course websites in computer labs. The article details the steps the university takes for students violating copyright rules. This seems much less punitive from the warning in the USC email:

The USC policy regarding student use of USC computing resources clearly states that a student who reproduces or distributes copyrighted materials in electronic form without permission from the copyright owner may be removed from the USC computer system and face further disciplinary action.

An official in the UC Office of the President also clearly stated that the university is not a policeman, as is the case with the University of Florida, and respects students’ privacy.

Back to Doctorow’s question. Are UCLA and the UC system backing the industry over students?

There’s evidence to say yes. The ACNS technology used in residence halls was developed by the MPAA. University officials worked with Universal Studios and Disney, as well as other studios to come up with a solution. A former UC Regent, Sherry Lansing, was intimately connected with Hollywood as the former head of Paramount Pictures. Finally, last November UCLA invited the chairman and CEO of the MPAA, Dan Glickman, for a q-and-a session on file-sharing.

I’m not so sure. UCLA and the UC are public universities committed to teaching, research and service. As public universities, they are accountable to a broader community than their students, staff, faculty, alumni and governing board. Ignoring federal or state laws is an option, but it could impede the university’s ability to fulfill its mission. UC complies with Proposition 209, a law I think sucks and impacts admission policy traditionally decided by faculty. Defying 209 could impact funding, which would hurt students, staff and faculty. The same might not happen with the DMCA or copyright law, but it could open the university up to costly lawsuits. I’m sure there’s better ways to spend the funds in UC’s limited budget. Universities also have a vested interest in complying with copyright law and protecting the work of its faculty and students from plagiarism or theft (see Office of Intellectual Property).

As a student, I know that getting sued by the RIAA would make me drop out of school for a quarter or more. I can’t afford legal fees on top of the high cost of tuition (not to mention the cost of living in LA). I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on my courses or research with legal worries hanging overhead. UCLA hasn’t done anything to impede my academic freedom or prevent me from producing new scholarship by complying with copyright laws. But then again, I haven’t been “quarantined” and denied access to the university network on my personal computer because I shared a few MP3s.

3 thoughts on “Are local universities in bed with the RIAA and MPAA?”

  1. Cindy,

    I appreciate your write-up on this issue, which seems to me much more balanced than Doctorow’s “P2P will save the world” mentality. I do, however, take issue with the implications of your last sentence. If you’re sharing mp3’s, you’re most likely breaking the law. Yes, there are exceptions. But I don’t see how UCLA’s policy, where they give students the chance to defend themselves as well as a couple of strikes, puts them in bed with the RIAA. It seems like a reasonable way for UCLA to try to prevent their students from breaking the law, just like their drug policy, alcohol policy, etc. You may disagree with these policies, but I can understand why a university would implement them, regardless of who the ultimate beneficiaries are.

  2. Oren,
    I actually think UCLA has a fairly balanced approach as well, but I haven’t been subjected to it in action. I wouldn’t say that UCLA is in bed with the RIAA and MPAA, but it’s clear from the articles I linked to that UCLA (and the UC system as a whole) have strong connections with Hollywood and the recording industry. Frankly, this makes sense given that there are people at UCLA who do nothing but schedule filmings and photo sessions on campus for studios (of course, UCLA makes money off of this) and we’re in LA. I doubt any prominent university in the entertainment capital of the world is going to do anything to alienate that industry.

    One thing that I didn’t make clear, the UC system and UCLA often have student representatives sitting on committees that make decisions such as choosing to offer iTunes to students. Students do have a say.

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